T S Eliot and the wasteland of modernity

Though Thomas Stearns Eliot was born in St. Louis, Missouri, both sides of his family were descended from old New England stock. Eliot's paternal grandfather was a Unitarian minister who had founded the first Unitarian church in St. Louis as well as its chief institution of higher learning, Washington University. Eliot attended Smith Academy in St. Louis and Milton Academy in Massachusetts before entering Harvard in 1906. A precocious literary talent, Eliot began writing poetry while still a school boy, and by the age of twenty-two he had published several quite accomplished poems.

In 1908, Eliot was to come across the book which was to be crucial to his poetic development: Arthur Symons' The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899). In Symons' study, Eliot discovered the work of French symbolists such as Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Verlaine, Tristan Corbiere, and especially

Jules Laforgue. Laforgue's rejection of Romantic style was a revelation to Eliot: the French poet's use ofslang and colloquialism, his ironic wit, and his construction ofthe poem as a short dramatic scene rather than a lyric utterance all contributed to Eliot's sense of the direction his own poetry should take. Eliot later claimed in an essay entitled "Reflections on Contemporary Poetry" (1919) that reading Laforgue taught him "the poetic possibilities of my own idiom of speech" and changed him "from a bundle of second-hand sentiments into a person."

Perhaps the chief lesson Eliot learned from Laforgue and other French symbolists was that poems could be made out of materials - such as the modern urban experience - that had previously been considered anathema to poetry. In giving poetic treatment to "the more sordid aspects of the modern metropolis," as he put it in an essay entitled "What Dante Means to Me" (1950), Eliot discovered that the source of new poetry might be found in what had previously been regarded as "the impossible, the sterile, the intractably unpoetic." Eliot's new understanding of poetry was apparent in his most important early poem, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," which he wrote in 1910-11.

It was Pound who convinced Harriet Monroe, the editor of Poetry magazine, to publish "Prufrock," and in June 1915 the poem finally appeared in print. Eliot's first volume, Prufrock and Other Observations, was published in 1917, and it included "Portrait of a Lady," "Preludes," "La Figlia Che Piange" and other poems along with the title work. The publication of Prufrock was greeted with cries of outrage by many readers in both the United States and England, and the first edition of 500 copies took four years to sell out. The book's lack of popular appeal is not surprising, since Eliot's poetry was highly intellectual as well as strikingly modern.

Eliot completed his PhD dissertation on the philosophy of F. H. Bradley -having pursued his academic studies at the Sorbonne, Harvard, and Oxford -but he never returned to Harvard to defend the thesis and receive his degree. Like Pound, Eliot felt the urge to live and write in Europe, and after 1914 he decided to settle permanently in England. While still in college he had written of the "failure of American life," concluding that while educated Americans may stay in America out of a sense of duty or for business reasons, "their hearts are always in Europe." As for poetry, the situation in America was disastrous: as Eliot commented, "there was not one older poet writing in America whose writing a younger man could take seriously."

"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" was a total departure from the genteel tradition of American poetry. It was certainly the most "modern" poem to have been written by an American, and in many ways it was the most obviously original American poem since the works of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. When Ezra Pound first read "Prufrock" in 1914, he was impressed enough to declare, in a letter to Harriet Montoe, that Eliot was the only American poet to have "made adequate preparation for writing" and to have "trained himself and modernized himself on his own." The poem was difficult for its contemporary readers in several ways: it had no plot (at least no discernable beginning, middle, and end), no real action apart from the internalized movement of a loose psychological narrative, and no real characters, presenting instead a speaker ("I"), an unnamed addressee ("you") and an unidentified woman ("one"). While the poem purports to be a "love song," it does not conform to that genre in any conventional way. Finally, the poem has no clearly definable setting (it could take place in any modern city).

"Prufrock" puts the sort of demands on its readers that later modernist poems like The Waste Land and The Cantos would greatly intensify. In order to fully grasp the poem, the reader must recognize and place in a new context a number of literary and Biblical allusions, including Dante's Inferno, Shakespeare's Hamlet, Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress," Hesiod's Works and Days, and the stories of Lazarus and John the Baptist. Further, Eliot's use of imagery, diction, and figurative language contribute to a style utterly different from that of any previous American poem.

The reader is drawn into the speaker's world by the opening lines, which are among the most famous in American poetry:

When the evening is spread out against the sky

Like a patient etherized upon a table;

Let us go, through certain half-deserted steets,

The muttering retreats

Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels

And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells;

Streets that follow like a tedious argument

Of insidious intent

To lead you to an overwhelming question . . . Oh, do not ask, "What is it?" Let us go and make our visit.

Eliot's poem is, as Piers Gray puts it, "elegantly unsettling," opening up "several layers of uncertainty."4 First of all, the use of pronouns creates an uncertainty about exactly who is speaking and who is being addressed. The first line contains three pronouns - "us," "you," and "I" - all referring to people as yet unidentified; aside from allusions to Michelangelo, Hamlet, and Lazarus, no proper nouns appear in the poem at all. The speaker is clearly "J. Alfred Prufrock," and the poem is his "love song," but who is this Prufrock, and what relation does he bear to Eliot himself? In contrast to Robert Browning's dramatic monologues, which are uttered by historical characters who reveal telling details about their lives, this poem is in the voice of an invented persona about whom we learn relatively little.

What we do learn about Prufrock in the course of the poem is presented in mostly negative terms: he is neither a prophet (Lazarus) nor a tragic hero (Prince Hamlet); he feels that his best years are past him, if they ever existed ("I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker"); he appears to have an existential and almost crippling fear of life ("Do I dare / Disturb the universe?"); he seems unable to communicate with a woman at a late-afternoon tea party; and he is extremely fastidious and sensitive to the possibility of social humiliation ("Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?"). According to Eliot, Prufrock was in part himself and in part a man of about forty: a timid middle-aged lover, he worries about being past his prime and about missing out on life ("I grow old ... I grow old / I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled"), and he fears death, "the eternal Footman." This confusion ofidentities is carried out on the level ofthe poem's language as well: we are constantly reminded by the use of rhyme, meter, and figurative language that the voice of the poem is Eliot's as much as the fictional Prufrock's. The "you" of the opening line is also vaguely disconcerting: while on one level it is clearly the reader, on another level it is a fictional interlocutor, presumably male, whom Prufrock invites to join him on his "visit" through the city streets as he confesses his various problems. Yet the "you" is also prohibited from asking questions, from prying too deeply into the speaker's consciousness: "Oh, do not ask, 'What is it?' / Let us go and make our visit."

The poem's setting is disturbingly anti-conventional. The physical environment of "Prufrock" is modern, urban, and nocturnal; the poem evokes a world very different from that which most of Eliot's middle-class readers would have experienced. The "half-deserted streets," "one-night cheap hotels," and "sawdust restaurants" suggest a descent into a Dantean Hell, a voyage that will constitute the first part of the "visit" to which the speaker invites the reader in the opening lines. This reading is suggested by the epigraph, which is taken from a speech in Dante's Inferno by Guido da Monte-feltro, one of the "False Counselors" of the eighth level of Hell. Guido tells Dante and Virgil that he can speak with them only because "never from this abyss has anyone ever returned alive." The "abyss" is presumably the city itself, as well as the psychological torment Prufrock experiences within his social circle. While the city here may not yet be the "waste land" depicted in Eliot's poem often years later, it is already a sordid, depressing, and nightmarish place. In a section originally intended to be included in "Prufrock" but removed before the publication of the poem ("Prufrock's Pervigilium"), Eliot's vision of the nightmarish city and its effect on Prufrock is even more pronounced: here he refers to another nighttime walk "through narrow streets" in which Prufrock encounters prostitutes ("Women, spilling out of corsets, stood in entries") and sees "evil houses leaning all together / Point[ing] a ribald finger at me in the darkness."

We are also unsettled by the language of the poem, and in particular by Eliot's figures of speech. There are two similes in the opening lines, both of which would have seemed highly unusual, even shocking, to post-Victorian readers. The first simile compares the evening, "spread out against the sky," to a "patient etherized upon a table." In Romantic and post-Romantic poetry the evening was generally treated as a moment of sublime rapture, as in Wordsworth's famous lines,

It is a beauteous evening, calm and free,

The holy time is quiet as a Nun

Breathless with adoration; the broad sun

Is sinking down in its tranquility.

Eliot is clearly working against this kind of Romantic image, forcing the reader to accept a very different register of diction in place of Romantic idealization. To say that the evening is "spread out against the sky" suggests something mechanical or artificial, rather than natural. In a literal sense, the evening cannot be separated from the sky which provides its physical manifestation; yet here the sky is treated as a kind of backdrop - a stage or screen, perhaps - against which the evening is projected. (An echo of this same image occurs later in the poem when Prufrock feels "as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on the screen.") The reader has little time to fully appreciate the novelty of Eliot's visual image, however, since the completion ofthe simile is even more striking: the evening is depicted as being "like a patient etherized upon a table." Where Wordsworth used the image of an adoring "Nun" to suggest the holiness and sanctity of the sunset, Eliot works against such a Romantic impulse in comparing the evening to a patient undergoing a medical procedure. Not only does the use of medical jargon ("etherized") clash with the conventional poetic treatment of the evening sky (as if to announce to the reader that this will be a thoroughly "modern" poem), but the idea of evening as an etherized patient suggests a number of possible meanings, none of them positive. Is the evening sick, requiring some kind of operation? If so, the evening may serve as an analogy of Prufrock's own psychically damaged condition. Is the evening drugged, put out ofits pain just as Prufrock himselfdesires to be anaesthetized against a hostile and uncomfortable world? Is "etherized" a pun on "ethereal," capturing the discrepancy between the spiritual or heavenly realm and the hellish world, devoid ofspiritual grace, to which Prufrock's nightly visit will lead? Or is the image of the etherized patient meant to suggest Prufrock's crippling passivity, which we will see again later in the poem in his fear of being "formulated, sprawling on a pin . . . pinned and wriggling on the wall"?

As these alternatives suggest, Prufrock himself feels etherized in more ways than one: he may be carefully groomed, with his "collar mounting firmly to the chin," but he is paralyzed with indecision and figuratively if not literally impotent. Prufrock's physical weakness is suggested by his thinning hair and spindly limbs, and he fears that when he is alone with a woman, he will not have the physical or emotional strength "to force the moment to its crisis." He is overpowered by the eyes, arms, and perfume of the women who surround him, yet because of age, physical weakness, and a crippling fear of rejection, he cannot act on his desires. Even the fantasy of the mermaids riding the ocean waves at the end of the poem does not allow Prufrock any real contact with female sexuality: "I do not think they will sing to me," he laments.

With the poem's second simile - "Streets that follow like a tedious argument / Of insidious intent" - Eliot seems more concerned with the associative meanings of the words he uses than with the precision of the comparison itself. Eliot moves from the more concrete visual image of the first simile to the more abstract comparison of the second, as if to encapsulate the poem's alternation between an external world of sensory particulars and an internal world of personal associations. Though we may not be able to say in exactly what way the city streets resemble a "tedious argument" - beyond the general sense of sameness or monotony the simile conveys - the rhyme of "tedious" and "insidious" emphasizes the unpleasant connotations of both adjectives. Both words apply more generally to Prufrock's situation: if Prufrock's existence is "tedious" - tedium being the most apparent fact of this world of afternoon teas and monotonous discussions of Michelangelo's paintings - the intent of the streets is "insidious" in its corrupting influence on the speaker's moral and sexual behavior. Eliot fully exploits the aural and connotative power of a word like "insidious" to create a tonality for the poem as a whole: the streets lie in wait for Prufrock, ready to entrap him in an act beneath the propriety demanded by the stuffy upper-class world he inhabits.

The "tedious argument" of the streets also leads the speaker to "an overwhelming question." This question, though never made explicit, introduces a series of questions which Prufrock asks in the course of the poem. In fact, the mode of address in the poem, despite its title, is less that of the "love song" (typically a declaration oflove for the object of the speaker's affection) than that of the endlessly repeating question. The single "overwhelming question" mentioned in the first stanza is later broken down into a series of smaller questions - "Do I dare?" . . . "How should I begin?" . . . "How should I presume?" - all of which emphasize Prufrock's inability either to arrive at a decision ("In a minute there is time / For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse"), or to make any declaration of his feelings. The "overwhelming question" is repeated in line 93 in the context of Prufrock's desire to speak to a woman and perhaps open his heart to her:

And would it have been worth it, after all,

After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,

Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,

Would it have been worth while,

To have bitten off the matter with a smile,

To have squeezed the universe into a ball

To roll it toward some overwhelming question,

To say, "I am Lazarus, come from the dead,

Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all" -

If one, settling a pillow by her head,

Should say: "That is not what I meant at all. That is not it, at all."

This crucial stanza juxtaposes references to Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress" ("Let us roll all our strength and all / Our sweetness up into one ball") and the story of Lazarus being raised from the dead, setting the two allusions in ironic counterpoint to each other. The "overwhelming question" here concerns both sexual desire - unfulfilled but constantly on Prufrock's mind - and death, as suggested by the appearance of the "eternal Footman" in the previous stanza. The story ofLazarus is the crowning miracle revealingJesus as the giver of life. Yet Prufrock's allusion to a miraculous return to life is ironized by the banal details of the afternoon tea and by the blase response of the "one" - the woman to whom he wishes to express himself. The changing tone of the stanza can be charted in the progression of the word "all": from the tired banality of "after all" to the prophetic power of "I shall tell you all," and then back to the deflating impact of the woman's dismissive response, "That is not it at all."

The reference to Marvell's poem further ironizes Prufrock's position: unlike Marvell's speaker, who attempts to use his powers of rhetorical persuasion to convince his "coy mistress" to sleep with him, Prufrock fails to persuade the woman of anything. Indeed, he can only wonder whether it would have been "worth while" to "squeeze the universe into a ball" and "roll it toward some overwhelming question." The absurdly hyperbolic nature of Prufrock's attempt to speak to the woman (also echoing the Greek myth of Sisyphus, condemned to roll a rock endlessly up a mountain and have it fall back down again) highlights the futility of his efforts. Eliot's curious use of prepositions - "After the cups, the marmalade, the tea, / Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me" - emphasizes the triviality of Prufrock's conversation, which never transcends the social and physical environment in which he is trapped. Prufrock does not blame the woman for not understanding him; in fact, as he says in the following stanza, "It is impossible to say just what I mean!" In reducing himself to "a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas," Prufrock expresses a sense of isolated despair about his inability to engage in meaningful communion with another person.

The impossibility of human communication would also be a central theme of The Waste Land, written in 1921, heavily edited by Pound, and first published in The Criterion in October 1922. In fact, as A. Walton Litz suggests, the poem's "essential psychology" is "that of someone who can perceive but cannot act, who can understand but cannot communicate."5 Such a pessimistic vision oflife is not surprising, since Eliot was recuperating from a nervous breakdown during the period in which he wrote the poem.

Eliot had suffered greatly from a disastrous marriage to Vivien Haigh-Wood in 1916. The other important context for the poem was World War I and its aftermath, which clearly took its toll on Eliot as it did on every writer or artist of his time. It is no mere coincidence that the opening section of The Waste Land is entitled "The Burial of the Dead": the poem is obsessed with death, and with the hoped-for possibility of a psychological and spiritual rebirth.

Perhaps no modern poem has received as much critical attention as The Waste Land: as a result, interpretations of the poem are extremely varied. The poem has been read as a critique of contemporary civilization, as a kind of modern-day dejection ode, as a Dantean descent into hell, as an experiment in stream-of-consciousness technique, as a pastoral elegy, as an attempt to create a new mythic structure, as a poem of the modern city, and as a poem of imperial apocalypse. In the first years after its publication, The Waste Land represented a kind of dividing point between those who admired it - accepting its revolutionary form, its highly allusive style, and even its fifty-two explanatory footnotes - and those who detested it. Louis Untermeyer, for example, felt that the poem was a kind of literary hoax, as he put it in his essay "Disillusion vs. Dogma" (1923), "a set of separate poems, a piece ofliterary carpentry, a scholarly joiner's work, the flotsam and jetsam of dessicated culture ... a pompous parade of erudition." Of course, in a literal sense, Untermeyer was correct about the construction of the poem, if not necessarily about its aesthetic result. The poem was assembled from various pieces Eliot had written over a period of several years, and it was heavily cut and revised based on suggestions from Pound. Pound persuaded Eliot to delete a number of sections from the poem, including 72 lines in rhymed couplets from the beginning of "The Fire Sermon"

and another 82 lines from the beginning of "Death by Water." He also convinced Eliot to cut three short lyrics he intended to use as interludes, and to eliminate conventional poetic diction and nonessential verbiage. The final product is, as Eliot himself tells us at the end of the poem, a loosely connected patchwork of "fragments." The poem has no single speaker, no single rhetorical mode or style (it is in turns narrative, conversational, descriptive, lyric, colloquial, hallucinatory, and allusive), and no single action or setting: although the poem is focused on London, it begins in Bavaria and ends in India.

The Waste Land is certainly difficult, though it no longer seems as impenetrable as it did to its first readers. The difficulties are of at least four kinds: its disjunctive and discontinuous form, its quotations in foreign languages (Latin, German, French, Italian, and Sanskrit), its multiple allusions, and its mythic structure. It is Eliot's allusions that will probably cause the most problems for the average reader: references to at least thirty-seven works of art, literature, history, and music can be found in the poem. Further, as Eliot's use of explanatory footnotes suggests, these allusions are not always obvious. Whereas the allusions in "Prufrock" were relatively familiar, the references in The Waste Land are often arcane, including not only the central texts of Western literature (the Bible, Virgil, Ovid, St. Augustine, Dante, Shakespeare, and Spenser) but also poems by Baudelaire, Verlaine, and Nerval, plays by Thomas Middleton, Ben Webster, Thomas Kyd and John Lyle, operas by Wagner, a book by Hermann Hesse, and Buddha's Fire Sermon. Like Pound's Cantos, Eliot's poem is conceived as a compendium or archive of Western civilization, a civilization that has fallen into disrepair and needs to be put back together. David Perkins explains the use of these allusive "fragments" in the poem:

The individual mind and the civilization are on the edge of a crack-up . . . Yet the panoramic range and inclusiveness of the poem, which only Eliot's fragmentary and elliptical juxtapositions could have achieved so powerfully in a brief work, held in one vision not only contemporary London and Europe but also human life stretching far back into time. The condition of man seen in the poem was felt to be contemporaneous and perennial, modern yet essentially the same in all times and places.6

An understanding of Eliot's "mythic method" is also a key to reading The Waste Land. Eliot called attention to two sources which had provided much of the background for the poem: Jessie Weston's From Ritual to Romance, which argued that the Arthurian quest for the Holy Grail was based on pre-Christian fertility myths, and James Frazer's The Golden Bough, an anthropological study of myths including that of the Fisher King, the dying and reviving god who was regarded as the incarnation of the land's fertility. Though critics have differed as to how closely The Waste Land is based on these mythic structures, Eliot's poem loosely follows the narrative of a quest for renewed life. The king is dead, and the land lies in a state of infertile desert; only when the king is healed or resurrected can the spring return, bringing with it the rain needed to sustain life. The poem moves from the desire for death (represented by the Cumaean Sibyl in the epigraph) to the beginnings of new life at the end. Eliot had not yet embraced Christianity at this point, and although the poem contains elements of Christian symbology (the Grail itself, as well as allusions to the New Testament, Dante's Purgatorio, and St. Augustine's Confessions), its final turn is not toward a Christian resurrection but toward an alternative form of spirituality based on the teachings of the Hindu Upanishads.

The Waste Land is divided into five sections, some much longer than others. The title of section I, "The Burial of the Dead," is a phrase from the Anglican burial service that refers to the dead of World War I but also to the dead body of the Fisher King, and thus, symbolically, to the death of civilization itself. It begins with some of the most celebrated lines in all of modern poetry:

April is the cruellest month, breeding Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing Memory and desire, stirring Dull roots with spring rain. Winter kept us warm, covering Earth in forgetful show, feeding A little life with dried tubers.

The first line clearly echoes the opening of another famous long poem, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales: "Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote / The droughte of March hath perced to the roote." Yet it is an ironic echo: where Chaucer's prologue celebrates the renewing and engendering powers of spring, Eliot's speaker points to the unresolved memories and desires the season brings to the surface. The two statements are based in paradox: while April is "the cruellest month," it is winter that "kept us warm." For the speaker, it is winter snow and not spring rain that proves comforting, sustaining the speaker's "little life" without forcing the painful encounter with the past that the rest of the poem represents. The speaker, whom we could call the poem's first protagonist, is an inhabitant of the waste land; he is also the poet himself, who declares himself through his perfect control of poetic language. The language here is highly lyrical in a poem where lyricism is not the dominant mode, as if to demonstrate the possibility of a traditional lyric mode in the twentieth century before calling that very mode into question through the discontinuous and allusive form of the poem.

The permutations of desire and memory are the thematic thread that holds the poem together. Desires are of various kinds: the desire for death expressed by the Cumaean Sibyl, the sexual desire of the house agent's clerk for the young typist, the brutal desire that causes King Tereus to rape Philomel, and Philomel's desire at the end of the poem to sing like the swallow. Clearly, in this poem, desire is a dangerous commodity: it can lead to disappointment, to frustration, to sordid affairs and unwanted children, and even to violence. The protagonist distrusts desire, preferring winter's dullness and forgetfulness to the "stirring," "mixing," and "breeding" of spring. Memory also takes various forms in the poem: there is the cultural memory of which the poem's many allusions are the emblems, the mythic memory of vegetation rituals and sacred quests, the historical memory of the war and the decay of Europe, the personal memories of Eliot himself (his unhappy marriage, mental breakdown, and recovery), and the memories of various characters including Marie and the "hyacinth girl" in "The Burial of the Dead."

It is perhaps the figure of the blind seer Tiresias, whom Eliot identifies in the footnotes as "the most important personage in the poem who unites all the rest" - who best encompasses both memory and desire. As the poem"s "spectator," Tiresias is fated to remember all the scenes he witnesses during his long life - "And I Tiresias have foresuffered all / Enacted on this same divan or bed." As an androgynous figure who has experienced being both a man and a woman - "throbbing between two lives, / Old man with wrinkled female breasts," he has a double acquaintance with desire. In one version of the Tiresias myth, he was blinded by Hera for judging that women enjoy sex more than men, yet the opposite is the case in the scene he witnesses between the typist and the office clerk in "The Fire Sermon." Here, the young man is clearly the aggressor in the sexual act, and the indifferent woman lets herself be seduced more out of boredom and exhaustion than out of any interest in her lover. For Eliot, this encounter is clearly emblematic of the modern waste land as it impacts the lives of both men and women. The pompousness and insensitivity of the clerk ("One of the low on whom assurance sits / As a silk hat on a Bradford millionaire"), the boring, routine, and tawdry existence of the woman, and the utter sterility of their relationship all point to a fallen modern world. Eliot ends the passage with an ironic commentary:

When lovely woman stoops to folly and

Paces about her room again, alone,

She smoothes her hair with automatic hand,

And puts a record on the gramophone.

The "automatic hand" here is a synecdoche for the generally automatized life of the woman: she works as a typist (itself a monotonous form of labor), and her movements of pacing the room, smoothing her hair, and putting a record on the gramophone suggest that she is caught in a groove from which she cannot escape. The typist can be compared with the other modern women who populate the poem, from Lil, a drained mother of five with rotting teeth, to the hysterical middle-class wife who declares to her husband, "My nerves are bad tonight. Yes, bad. Stay with me." The lines also contain an allusion to Oliver Goldsmith's eighteenth-century novel The Vicar of Wakefield, in which the seduced and deserted Olivia sings that when "lovely woman stoops to folly," the only solution to her shame and grief is to die. The modern woman in Eliot's poem - no Romantic heroine but a naturalistic inhabitant of the urban metropolis - has no intention of dying: instead, her complete emotional detachment from her own situation represents a kind of death in life.

If scenes of modern urban life dominate the first three sections of the poem, the final section, "What the Thunder Said," moves outside the city to a desert landscape, where "there is no water but only rock." Here the vision of London as an "Unreal City" expands to include the destruction of various civilizations: "Jerusalem Athens Alexandria / Vienna London / Unreal." The wandering protagonist finally reaches a chapel in the mountains, the "Chapel Perilous" that must be passed on the quest for the Grail. With the quest nearly at an end, the rains come and we shift landscapes again, this time arriving at the shores ofthe Indian Ganges (itselfa more spiritual counterpart to London's Thames). The sound of the thunder is imagined as a heavenly voice which speaks the syllable "DA," the source of the three great disciplines of Hindu thought: "datta" (give), "dayadhvam" (sympathize), "damyata" (control). To give, in the sense of surrendering oneself to another, is the direct opposite of desire: it is an act that requires an "awful daring" in an "age of prudence." Sympathy or compassion for others will allow us to leave the "prison" of our own consciousness that has in part created the waste land. And finally, the control of our baser natures will allow us to achieve a kind of effortless harmony with the divine force. The new awareness that comes with these disciplines provides a means by which the protagonist, now figured explicitly as the Fisher King, can at last "set [his] lands in order."

The poem ends with an explosion of fragments in different languages, offering a kaleidescopic vision of a fallen bridge, a ruined tower, and a refining fire. This apocalyptic moment is in turn followed by the thrice-repeated Sanskrit word shantih ("the peace which surpasseth understanding") with which the poem ends. An ending in which scraps ofWestern literature mingle with the ancient wisdom of the Upanishads is by any standard highly ambivalent - it must have appeared almost insurmountably so to most of

Eliot's first readers - yet it is an appropriate conclusion to such a fundamentally unstable poem. The ending of The Waste Land was the closest Eliot could come, at this stage of his life, to anything resembling formal or thematic closure. Eliot's readers would have to wait twenty more years, until the completion of The Four Quartets (see chapter 9), for an ending that affirmed an unambiguous spiritual doctrine.

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Responses

  • maddalena
    Who calls wasteland the jetsum of dessicated culture a pompour or erudition?
    3 years ago

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